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TO the Cinque Forts, of which Rye and Winchilsea are appendages, we have already adverted in several articles of this work. As places where strength and vigilance were particularly necessary, and from which ships might put to sea in cases of sudden emergency, these ports were entitled, in former times, to the special attention of government, and performed great and important services to the country. Their privileges are numerous, and they are within the jurisdiction of the Constable of Dover Castle, Warden of the Cinque Ports.
Until the reign of Henry VIII., the crown seems to have had no permanent navy, but to have depended almost entirely on the Cinque Ports for the protection of our maritime frontier; and hence the origin of those privileges conferred upon them by successive sovereigns, in acknowledgment of services rendered to the State. Among these are the exemption from toll and harbour dues, still recognized at several ports, and various other rights of minor consideration. In ancient times there were several courts of jurisdiction, extending over all the ports and their members, and intended either as courts of appeal, for persons who considered themselves aggrieved by any of the separate and local tribunals, or for regulating the grand affairs of the whole association; but these may now be considered as obsolete — their functions have dwindled to mere matters of form.
Rye is a town and harbour of great antiquity, near the borders of the Kentish marshes. It occupies the declivity of a hill, on a peninsula, bounded on the south and west by the sea, and on the east by the river Rother. The town is composed of several well-formed and regularly built streets, and lighted with gas; and from various points the eye wanders over the channel and adjacent country, where rural and marine scenery conspire to form some of the most delightful views on the coast of England. The ancient history of Rye, during the height of its prosperity as a sea-port, abounds in incidents of a martial and romantic interest, as transmitted to us by Froissart and the ancient chroniclers of those times when the star of chivalry was still dominant in the kingdoms of Europe.
In the reign of Richard II., and again in that of Henry VI., Rye was burnt by the French, when the early records of the town are supposed to have been consumed; for, with the exception of a few fragments, all the old writings and charters which have been discovered are subsequent to that calamity. In the same conflagration, the old church is supposed to have fallen a sacrifice, and to have been rebuilt in its present form — a capacious cruciform structure with a central tower — but in a different situation, the original having stood on the spot, near Ypres lower, called the Old Church-yard. This tower, now appropriated to the purposes of a gaol, has recently undergone several alterations and improvements.
The old harbour of Rye, which in former days presented so stirring a scene of commercial activity, has dwindled like that of Sandwich, Winchilsea, and many of its prosperous contemporaries, into comparative insignificance. But in accounting for this melancholy fact, we must look to natural causes, rather than to the decay of native enterprise. The present harbour is situated on the east side of the town ; and on the north — a mile and a half from the sea entrance — vessels of two hundred tons burden can still lade and unlade close to the quay. Under spirited management, and with proper funds for such an enterprise, it is believed that it might still be made to accommodate vessels of every draught and tonnage. By means of the three rivers, Rother, Tillingham, and Brede, which traverse the country, great facilities are afforded to commercial intercourse. Coal, corn, hops, bark, wood, and timber, constitute the chief articles of trade; and several sloops are constantly employed in conveying chalk from the cliffs at East Bourne, for the burning of lime. During the season, the herring and mackerel fisheries employ a good many hands, the produce of which is chiefly sent to the London market.
The Borough of Rye has exercised the elective franchise from the earliest date of parliamentary representation. Previous to the enactment of the Reform Bill, it returned two members; but by that great public measure the town and its electoral district were limited to one representative. The government of the town is vested in a mayor, four aldermen, and twelve councilors. The mayor is Coroner for the borough and liberty, and also a justice of the peace. Courts of quarter sessions are held before a recorder, nominated by the crown; and a commission of the peace has been conferred on four gentlemen, residents of the borough, who meet in petty session twice a week in the Court-hall. The church living, a discharged vicarage, is in the gift of the Earl of Burlington. The charitable institutions consist of a Free Grammar School, a British School, an almshouse, and some minor bequests for benevolent purposes. Corn and provision markets are held twice a week — a cattle-market every fortnight — and annual fairs on Whitmonday and the tenth of August.